The Future Is...

Posted by | Chris | 29.12.10 | 4 Comments

Steven Shaviro's chapter in The Speculative Turn (“The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the Problem of Relations”) continues an ongoing argument aimed at the Object Oriented Ontologists. For Harman and OOO objects are withdrawn from all relations in their ultimate being. No relation or set of relations can ever exhaust an object since it is a substance above and beyond all of its encounters with other objects. In contrast there is a large, and sometimes disparate, group of philosophers who maintain that the ontological being of things inheres in their relations. Alfred North Whitehead is unquestionably one of these and is championed by Shaviro as holding the answers to a great many metaphysical problems.

I've got a great deal of respect for Shaviro's Whiteheadianism; Whitehead is perhaps my favourite philosopher and Shaviro's work has done a great deal to present and make clear the relevancy of Whitehead to contemporary debates. I love Shaviro's application of Whitehead to contemporary technological and cultural questions too. However, in the current debate I find I'm more keenly aware of Whitehead's shortcomings than of his sometimes daring, but always urbane, contributions to philosophy.

Graham Harman has often made clear his debt and appreciation to Whitehead, but equally he has been quick to point out the difficulties presented by Whitehead's ontology. Primary amongst these is Whitehead's relationism. For Harman any ontology defined entirely by its relations is unable to account for change. If any entity is defined by it's relations then it is exhaustively defined, there is nothing beyond its relations and hence nothing which might act as a motor for change in the entity.

I find it interesting that while Whitehead's realtionism is the main point of argument in Harman's reply, he makes no mention of 'decision' which holds a central place in Shaviro's Whiteheadian rebuttals to OOO. In Whitehead's philosophy decision is the final act whereby entities become what they are. It is the selection among alternatives which gives each entity its particular view on the world. Recently Shaviro has suggested that some variant of panpsychism might more usefully address problems in the sciences (as opposed to a focus on 'life') by considering mentality incipient in all things. This mentality Shaviro construes in terms of decision.

Perhaps the reason Harman does not address decision is that a criticism of it is implicit in his attack on Whitehead's relationism:
As [Whitehead] puts it early in Process and Reality: ‘The analysis of an actual entity into “prehensions” is that mode of analysis which exhibits the most concrete elements in the nature of actual entities’. In other words, to speak of actual entities in terms of anything but their prehensions is a mere abstraction; the entities themselves are concrescences, or systems of prehensions.(Response to Shaviro: 296).
The entities of Whitehead's ontology are nothing but their relations and there is not substance or power left over which could make any decision.

I fear that Harman may be right about this. There are further problems for Shaviro and Whitehead when one considers God's role in every actual entity's decision (the freedom of which is extremely questionable). And yet I'm not willing to concede an absolute victory to Harman in this case. Whitehead's metaphysics may not be riddled with difficulties (or possibly incoherent), but there is more in it than Harman's argument implies.

For one, I reject Whitehead's ontological principle as the measure of his metaphysics. This is contrary to Whitehead's explicit intentions, but it seems to me that Whitehead himself fails to maintain the principle. If the reason for any change is to be found in actual entities then the notion of an actual entity must be expanded to include the eternal objects. This brings me to my second objection: I strongly disagree with Harman's characterisation of 'eternal objects'.
[Whitehead] thinks that qualities pre-exist: he calls them ‘eternal’, after all, and links them with the Platonic forms. No new qualities can ever be produced for Whitehead, for all his reputation as a philosopher of novelty: what is produced in his view is simply new constellations of actual entities, prehended according to pre-existing eternal objects (Ibid: 298).
Whitehead certainly deserves some of the blame for this - I wish he'd called his potentials anything but 'eternal' - but Harman's linking them to Platonic forms (in a pejorative sense) needs some explanation. There's little question that Whitehead is a Platonist, but to suggest that his metaphysics conforms to two-worlds ontology of forms is to do a disservice both thinkers.

In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead explicates his metaphysics as a doctrine of immanent law by way of Plato's definition of being as power:
My suggestion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another even for a moment, however trifling the cause and however slight and momentary the effect, has real existence; and that the definition of being is simply power (Plato, Sophist, 247E).
A powers ontology is a long way from the traditional two-worlds ontology traditionally attributed to Plato. To similarly complicate Whitehead's ontology, would be to include eternal objects in the creative generation of the actual entities in the manner promised by Whitehead if not delivered.

To pull Whitehead in this direction is to make him something like a philosopher of the rumbling apeiron of thinkers like Grant (see below) and Harman is clear that he rejects interpreting Whitehead in this way:
You can say what you like about Whitehead […] being interested in process and history. But the real point for them is that all such process is produced by the work of individual entities—a claim that would merely be nonsense for Deleuze, Bergson, Simondon, DeLanda, and Grant (Response to Shaviro: 294).
Pushing Whitehead to his limits however, I have often wondered how far he extends his claim to the contingency of the laws of nature? Is the process of actual occasions also contingent? What power determines them? Might it be argued that actual entities are themselves the products of powers and therefore not the "individual entities" doing the work?

Having come this far from Whitehead's original intention however, it has to be asked if we're strictly Whiteheadians any more. Nor would any of this answer Harman's criticisms of Relationism. But I continue to find The Speculative Turn an exhilarating read suggestive of so many possibilities. I wish Shaviro all the best and I'm totally intrigued by OOO; I'm really excited to see where it goes.

Squashed Philosophers

1 Comment

In response to Chris's comment in a recent post, wishing that more philosophers could be schematized much like Alex did with Kant in his Critical Flowchart, I offer the following. It's been floating around the Internet for ages, but I remembered it when reading the post below.

Their own ideas, in their own words, neatly honed into little half-hour or so reads.
"Like reading the bible without all the begats" - Jim Curtis

(You really could read these in an afternoon.)

Deviant Intellectual Heirs

Posted by | Chris | 27.12.10 | 4 Comments

It's been a real pleasure to read a couple of chapters of The Speculative Turn. The first Harman chapter and Grant's response give a real sense of the kind of exciting argument taking place in the aftermath of Speculative Realism; arguments for realism competing in their renegade and heterodox take on philosophy.

Harman's chapter repeats in condensed form some of his recent arguments about philosophies which undermine and overmine objects. Objects are considered either as merely surface effects of some deeper becoming (undermined), or as the bundles of qualities, events, actions and effects which explain away the weirdness of objects (overmined). Harman's primary target in this chapter is the undermining ontology (as he sees it) of Iain Grant - a naturephilosophy of rumbling productivity which makes horses and minerals ephemeral appearances with no power or autonomy of their own.

What is made wonderfully apparent in this chapter (and in Grant's reply) is the way in which despite all of their agreements - and there are many - what separates them is their attitude to substance and power, with each of them coming down on a different side of the argument between Aristotle (Harman) and Plato (Grant).

Harman's chapter proceeds by elucidating comparisons between Grant and Giordano Bruno, another philosopher for whom objects are appearances of a deeper becoming. What Harman opposes in this is the way in which objects are rescinded any power of their own, being mere accidents of the real power underlying everything. Objects have no autonomy or independent existence under such an conception according to Harman and might be said to barely exist at all. What has reality, at the cost of the autonomy of objects, is the primordial becoming subtending the appearance of those objects:
Much as with neo-Platonism, things happen only vertically by retardation, contraction, or emanation from some more primal layer of the world. There is little room for horizontal interactions, as when fire burns cotton or rock shatters window.
Grant's reply is brief, though characteristically dense, and repeats his often quoted- for his students at least - arguments about the dependence or antecedence of bodies and powers.
The thoroughgoing contingency of natural production undermines, I would claim, any account of permanently actual substantial forms ['objects'] precisely because such contingents entail the actuality not simply of abstractly separable forms, but of the powers that sculpt them.
This argument is one that I'm inclined to side with Grant on, but one that is also a continuing project for me. Grant's reply is not long enough to be really satisfying. He mentions briefly that any consideration of the implications of Harman's retooling of occasionalism must wait for another time which only makes me want to read more. Grant's book has probably arrived from the Book Depository for me by now, but in Bristol which is annoying.

One little phrase used by Harman in his introduction really made me smile, and gave me something to aspire to. Speaking of the book in the context of his dystopian imaginings of the philosophical landscape in 2050 divided between the four schools of Speculative Realism he says: "we can get down to work and move slowly toward the epic battles of four decades hence, to be carried on posthumously by our deviant intellectual heirs".

Looking then to increase my deviancy I wonder what to read next; may Shaviro vs. Harman for round two?

The Speculative Turn

Posted by | Chris | 26.12.10 | 1 Comment

The Speculative Turn, edited by Graham Harman, Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek, is now available in book form and in a free to download PDF! I was about to read some more Cyclonopedia but I can't wait to read Graham Harman and Iain H Grant fight it out in print.

1. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, ‘Towards a Speculative Philosophy’
2. Alain Badiou, ‘Interview with Ben Woodard’
Speculative Realism Revisited
3. Graham Harman, ‘On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno and Radical Philosophy’
4. Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Mining Conditions: A Response to Harman’
5. Ray Brassier, ‘Concepts and Objects’
6. Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘Does Nature Stay What-it-is? Dynamics and the Antecendence Criterion’
7. Alberto Toscano, ‘Against Speculation, or, A Critique of the Critique of Critique’
After Finitude
8. Adrian Johnston, ‘Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux?’
9. Martin Hägglund, ‘Radical Atheist Materialism: A Critique of Meillassoux’
10. Peter Hallward, ‘Anything is Possible: A Reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude
11. Nathan Brown, ‘The Speculative and the Specific: On Hallward and Meillassoux’
12. Nick Srnicek, ‘Capitalism and the Non-Philosophical Subject’
13. Reza Negarestani, ‘Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy’
14. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Is it Still Possible to be a Hegelian Today?’
15. Quentin Meillassoux, ‘Potentiality and Virtuality’
16. François Laruelle, ‘The Generic as Predicate and Constant: Non-Philosophy and Materialism’
17. Levi Bryant, ‘The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Ontology’
18. Steven Shaviro, ‘The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations’
19. Graham Harman, ‘Response to Shaviro’
20. Bruno Latour, ‘Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence
21. Gabriel Catren, ‘Outland Empire’
22. Isabelle Stengers, ‘Wondering about Materialism’
23. Manuel DeLanda, ‘Emergence, Causality, and Realism’
24. John Protevi, ‘Ontology, Biology, and History of Affect’
25. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Interview with Ben Woodard’